Site: The paved exterior space of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1974.

Program: A temporary event space for public education programs, served by a 2,000-square-foot lounge.

Solution: Bunshaft’s brooding concrete-and-granite donut at the Hirshhorn Museum is a perfect foil for an inflatable structure whose playful form will take over the museum’s central courtyard and surrounding plaza in warm weather. The proposal by New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro for a seasonal expansion will create a vibrant public space to house art and education events.

The inflatable membrane—which squeezes into the void of the museum courtyard, oozing out the top and beneath its mass—covers the museum’s courtyard and transforms the central space into an auditorium, café, and meeting place. The pavilion will be erected for one month each spring and fall. Both installation and building, the air-filled structure challenges long-standing perceptions of what a museum means as a public space, how it encourages pluralistic audiences, and what it is able to exhibit. Its presence underscores a paradigm shift at the Hirshhorn: The museum is growing in importance as a place for dialogue and education extending beyond the traditional art world.

“In terms of the innovation, the freshness of the idea, the sustainable aspects, and the presentation, it’s just delicious,” juror Dan Rockhill enthused. Juror Steve Dumez noted, “It uses resources. But it reuses them, over and over and over again.”

The translucent pavilion will immerse visitors in a sheltered, 14,000-square-foot space shaped by a series of cable rings that constrict the membrane, pulling it away from the walls of the building’s central courtyard. Other cables will tether it into place at each floor. The resulting contours produce changing shafts and pockets of outdoor space that visitors will experience from the ground and the galleries. Semipermanent anchors are designed to be removed when not in use, and the membrane can be recycled when it reaches the end of its life.

Within the bubble, the courtyard will accommodate 500 to 800 seats for an array of public events including live performances, films, lectures, and debates. A café and lounge will extend from the central event space into the adjacent sculpture plaza. After it has been inflated by semipermanent inflation equipment stored on the roof of the building, the seemingly weightless pavilion will provoke a dialogue with the solid, permanent form of the museum. And so that it doesn’t deflate, pressure is maintained by an air lock in the entry vestibule.

“The Hirshhorn is a wonderful building, but this will completely transform the way you experience it,” Dumez observed. “On the exterior, you’ll see this odd protuberance sticking out of the bottom and the top. But just imagine what the inside galleries will be like, where currently you look across this empty space. Because of the transparency, this form is going to interact with the entire building.”

Project Credits

Client Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Lead Designer Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York—Elizabeth Diller (principal-in-charge); Charles Renfro, AIA, Ricardo Scofidio, AIA (principals); David Allin (project leader); William Arbizu, James Brucz, Michael Etzel, Felipe Ferrer, Matthew Ostrow, Haruka Saito (project team)
Associate Architect KlingStubbins, Washington, D.C.—Pascal Pittman, AIA (principal); Diane Evans, AIA (project manager)
Tensile Structure Engineer Form TL—Gerd Schmid (principal)
Theater Design Fisher Dachs Associates—Joshua Dachs (principal)
Acoustician JaffeHolden—Mark Holden (principal)
Lighting Consultants Tillotson Design Associates—Suzan Tillotson (president)
Wind Engineering Consultants Wacker Ingenieure—Jürgen Wacker
Climatic Analysis and Engineering DyAnaKG—Andreas Buchner
Rigging Consultant Inauen-Schätti—Bruno Inauen
Size 14,000 square feet